Miles Kington: For the best conversations, try the Charing Cross Road

There are more camels in Australia than in any other country in the world. Where do you think the Arabs go to find their best racers?
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The Independent Online

I have been to London twice this month, once to see The Thirty-Nine Steps with the family and once to go to a BBC Radio departmental Christmas Party. Now I don't have to go to London again this year.

Some people might question why I had to go to the BBC party at all, which shows that you do not understand the life of the freelance writer. All alone, all day long, he struggles in silence, with none of the murderous jollity of office politics to stimulate him, and when it comes to the year's end he has no office party to go to and no colleagues to plot with against other colleagues. So when he is invited to someone else's office party, his impulse is to leap at the opportunity.

It is only later that you begin to regret the decision. In my case it came about halfway down the Charing Cross Road. I had arrived early in London to do some Christmas shopping, and now, laden with some unnecessary purchases, I was walking in the general direction of Westminster, where the party was due to start in a couple of hours. My legs were aching. My hands were beginning to suffer from bag-handle burn. It was getting dark and cold. A pub loomed up on the corner of the street. It looked inviting. I went in and bought a drink.

Looking round for somewhere to sit, I spotted an empty chair at a table already occupied by a middle-aged couple. Would they mind if ...? Not at all, said the man, in a rich Australian accent.

We got chatting. It turned out they were over here visiting relatives for Christmas and the New Year. (Christmas in Hertfordshire, Hogmanay in Aberdeen. Nice planning.)

"Not come over here to gloat about the cricket?" I said.

"No," he said. "We've come over here to get away from the shithouse weather."

It's unbearably hot in Victoria right now, it seems, dry and combustible, and in fact Alan (his name) logged on to a website every night which told him the state of play back home, not with cricket but with forest fires.

While he was talking, something kept tugging at the back of my mind. The next time I met an Australian, I was going to ask him about something ... now, what was it? Ah, yes! Camels! My wife had seen a picture of camels in Australia and had expressed disbelief that they had them there.

"Tell me," I said, "what the state of play is with camels in Australia?"

Alan knew all the answers. Camels had been introduced in the 19th century, with Afghan drivers, to take stuff across the desert to Alice Springs. When they built the railway - which was still called the Ghan after the Afghans - they let the camels go. They throve in the desert.

"And today," said Alan,"there are more camels in Australia than in any other country in the world. Fact. Where do you think the Arabs go to find their best racing camels?"

"I think you're going to say Australia," I said.

"I think I am," he said.

"So what are you up to in London?" I said.

"We've just come out of a matinee of a show called The Thirty-Nine Steps," said his wife (Marian).

What a strange coincidence. The only show I had seen in London all year! We all said how wonderful the production was, then we talked about theatre in general, and Australian theatre in particular, then about gambling, which they said was getting out of hand in Australia. (They never tell you about the amount of suicides at the end of the night in a big casino, said Alan.)

We talked about camel farming, and train travel, and Germans in Queensland, and then I suddenly realised that as I had sat and chatted to them for an hour already, I was going to be late for my BBC party, so off I went, and when I got to the BBC party I met some people I knew and some I didn't, and everyone talked about the BBC, which I suppose is what office parties are for, and some of it was quite interesting, but by far the best conversation I had all evening was with two travelling Australians in a pub near Cambridge Circus.

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